War is horrific and cruel. Its brutalities burrow into the memories of everyone it touches, forever changing landscapes and lives left in its wake. From her memories of the end of the Ethiopian Civil War, Ethiopian-Israeli writer-director Aäläm-Wärqe Davidian takes an unflinching look at war in her feature film debut, Fig Tree. A sumptuous film about pain and perseverance, Fig Tree was awarded the Audentia Award for Best Female Director at the Toronto Film Festival (TIFF).
Set in Addis Ababa in 1989, Davidian's film centers around Mina (Betalehem Asmamawe), a 16-year-old girl who is desperate to hold on to both her homeland and Eli (Yohanes Muse), her Christian boyfriend, who is frantically evading being drafted into Mengistu Haile Mariam's army.
Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Davidian about this compelling, coming-of-age story and the sacrifices she made to make this film.
Davidian left war-torn Ethiopia when she was just 11 years old, but Mina's story is quite different from her own. Fig Tree was born out of Davidian's desire to connect to her memories and the feelings from her childhood that still lingered with her.
"I started to go to pharmacy school, but I was rejected," she said. "During that time, I was watching a ton of movies. I was inspired to share the way I viewed the world, especially because I would always see these awful headlines about Ethiopia and Africa. I came from there, and I wanted to share what it was really like, and how it made me feel. It's beautiful, and Amharic is a beautiful language. I felt in my soul that it was something that I needed to share."
Photo Credit: Fig Tree. Courtesy of TIFF.
Though Davidian did live through the war, she was not interested in depicting her recollections. She wanted Fig Tree to be much more rousing than that.
"Watching my story would be very boring," she chuckled. "I was born during the Civil War. But I tried to capture my feeling about this moment, and describe my feelings about the war and the people. Of course, I was inspired by those closest to my heart. For example, with Mina’s grandmother, I thought about my amazing grandmother, but they aren’t the same people. When I met the actress who plays Mina’s grandmother, I knew she would bring her own nuances to the character, and I wanted her to have the freedom to create.”
Despite Fig Tree’s rich subject matter, it took Davidian five long years to get the film made. We discussed the numerous roadblocks that she faced before getting to the final cut.
"When I was trying to get the funding, it took maybe five or six years in Israel," she said. "Then, casting in Ethiopia was a difficult experience in and of itself. There is no agency for casting in Ethiopia. Instead, we worked with a producer, who had a film school, and we got a chance to work with his students. We took 10 students for casting, and we brought in a professional casting director from Israel to do workshops for them."
While filming Fig Tree, Davidian had to deal with being away from her husband and young son for six months, while also facing regular sexism on her set.
"I was far from my family," she explained. “It was really the most difficult part, because my son was two years old, and deciding to not be with him half a year was so hard," Davidian said.
"Additionally, there were a lot of complicated situations, as a woman in a foreign country, when it came to working with men," she continued. "At some point, I thought to myself, 'I need to be smart, here. I know my vision. Sometimes things go wrong, and that’s OK.' There was some tension between myself and some of the men on set, who tried to tell me what my vision was. The love aspect of Mina and Eli’s relationship was a challenge. I can speak about war and ugly things, but I cannot do love. It felt so stupid to me. But I didn’t panic, and I kept going."
Photo Credit: Fig Tree. Courtesy of TIFF.
When it came to casting Mina, Davidian knew Asmamawe was the perfect choice, because her instincts were so sharp.
"We found her in this acting school," the filmmaker revealed. "I saw that she is a very, very smart person. I was sitting in the back, and I knew she could feel that there was a stranger in the room. She didn’t look at me, but I saw that she was very aware of herself. I asked her to audition and she was amazing."
After the long process of casting Fig Tree, Davidian still had to find the right location for the film. A literal fig tree would serve as an oasis for Mina and Eli – a place of solace from their increasingly volatile world.
"It took a lot of location scouting," Davidian recalled. "It's the heart of the movie. There are beautiful fig trees in Ethiopia; they are very antique. But to find one near a river took a very long time. It was also important to show the savageness of war slicing through Mina and Eli’s sacred place. The tree was like their heaven, and the war spoils it."
As one can imagine, there isn't a fairy tale ending for Mina and Eli, and driving that point home was perhaps the most crucial aspect for Davidian, while creating Fig Tree.
"I tried to remember how I felt about immigrating," she remembered. "When I left Ethiopia for Israel, it was very brutal for me, as a child. I wanted to stay in Ethiopia. That’s where my life and my home was, but my parents wanted to leave. When war comes to your doorstep, it’s shocking and horrible. I will never be able to understand it. There is no way to do it nicely; you can't control it. In the end, it's going to catch up with you. You can’t outrun it.”
Source: YouTube | Geomovies
Fig Tree premiered September 8, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.